COLUMBUS, Ohio — After weeks of combing through court documents and interviews, 10 Investigates has uncovered several new pieces to a disturbing puzzle, involving grieving families and dead bodies.
The claims all center around 41-year-old Shawnte Hardin who was indicted in October on 37 charges ranging from abuse of a corpse to representing as a funeral director while unlicensed.
Hardin made local headlines in September when the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation executed a search warrant at a building in the 1600 block of Livingston Avenue. Inside they found two bodies.
In an exclusive interview, Hardin told 10TV that he owns a transport business and that he stored the bodies at the location.
After we broke the story, several families called claiming Hardin told them he was funeral director, not a transporter which he denies.
However, 10 Investigates discovered at least a dozen complaints filed against Hardin since 2016 with the Ohio Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors.
One complaint says a body was so decomposed, the skin was slipping off, and mothballs were used to help eliminate the odor.
Another complaint says a worker at a cemetery in Akron got sick after Hardin showed up in an old rusty van with a body for burial that had a pronounced smell of decomposition.
"The funeral industry works very hard to try and accommodate grieving families of deceased," explained Marvin Johnson, owner of Johnson Mortuary Transport.
Johnson says he’s had past dealings with Hardin.
"He introduced himself to me as being a funeral director and embalmer who owned two funeral homes – one in Akron and another in Warren," said Johnson.
Hardin has never been licensed as a funeral director in Ohio, nor as an embalmer. And Johnson thinks Hardin's business practices sometimes skirted Ohio law.
"What he would do is allow the licensed funeral home to do embalming and then he would come in and ask for a transfer of the deceased to his care," explained Johnson.
In a week's time back in 2017, a civil lawsuit shows that exact thing happened several times at Diehl-Whittaker funeral services in Columbus, which raised a red flag. Eventually, the owner accused Hardin of costing him time and money.
"He’s gotten away with it for so long. I just think Shawnte began to think he was invincible," Marlan Gary, owner of Marlin Gary Funeral Homes said.
Gary has known Hardin since he was a teen. While he has worked in several funeral homes, Gary says Hardin lacks the professional training, license and experience to care for the dead.
“There was one instance where he picked up a deceased from our funeral home. He picked them up in a minivan. He did not have a gurney. So he transported the human remains from my gurney to the back of his van. With a coffee table turned upside down. The four legs sticking up. In order to support the body, to keep it from rolling around in the back of his van," Gary said.
Despite knowing his past and lack of a state license. Gary says his hands have been tied when dealing with Hardin.
“In Ohio you can’t hold a body, in terms of ransom. If a family wants to move a body, they have every right to do so," explained Gary.
State investigators say Hardin told families he was associated with a licensed funeral director with the Islamic church, now living in Maryland. The doctor told investigators he knows Hardin but never agreed to allow him to use his name and license number at free will.
"Who knows who has been embalming for him – maybe that is something that will come out in this investigation," Gary said.
According to family interviews with state investigators on several occasions, Hardin would transfer bodies to Donovan Funeral home near Akron. It’s the same business fined in the past for associating with Hardin.
After several unreturned calls to the owner, 10TV showed up to get answers. We were told he wasn’t available. He never returned our calls.
Some families we spoke with say they can't put their dealings with Hardin behind them because they have questions about cremated remains they received and delayed death certificates.
"How does another human being look at themselves and say that’s ok. It just boggles my mind," state representative Paula Hicks-Hudson said.
As the former mayor of Toledo, Hicks-Hudson is familiar with his name. She is outraged by Hardin’s ability to build a business enterprise, using what she says are loopholes in the state law.
“It makes no sense that families who are grieving and hurting will be taken advantage of in such a way," Hicks-Hudson said.
Hicks-Hudson is now pushing for legislation to ensure there are stronger requirements and oversight for those dealing with the dead and harsher legal action for those caught operating without a license.
“We've got it drafted. Now we've just got to get it to the funeral board and other places, for them to look at it – and give me their opinions – as to whether or not this is going to address that particular issues," she said.
Hicks-Hudson is not the only lawmaker looking to address grey areas in the state law when it comes to funeral-related practices. A compressive bill already in the Senate is getting favorable action and support from the state board.
Hardin is out on bond and on house arrest. He has been ordered to not accept money from families or engage in funeral-related activities, which includes the transportation of bodies.
His attorney tells 10TV that Hardin helped people through a difficult and expensive process, within the boundaries of the law.
The government recently provided Hardin’s defense with 30,000 documents which include various allegations against him, which they are working to review before the Feb. 7 trial date.